Sunday 19 October 2008

Humans, Online

"Humans, Online" - by Alexander Gallé - first published in Luxury Briefing's October 2008 issue.

by Alexander Gallé

One year has passed since our launch of Artipolis, the arts network. Much has happened since 11 October 2007: the world of social networks has definitely flourished since then, and some trends have started to form. Our little experiment provides some food for thought for the luxury industry...

The main lesson to learn, in my view, is that social networks can be much more personal and authentic than people seem to be prepared to admit. The story I hear more often than anything is that social networks are less "real", that real human interaction doesn't happen there, hindered by the medium itself. To some extent, happily, this may be true. To some extent, social networks are just more of the "secondary experience", as George Steiner would put it. There's nothing quite like "being there".

However, it is perfectly feasible for a social network to build up a high level of trust and integrity between its members e.g. insisting on real personal details rather than pseudonyms; invitations being passed through friends, creating an expanding circle of trust, rather than a pool of people with a common interest from around the planet, etc. Do that, and you'll be pleasantly surprised to see just how many members will happily do business with other members, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and how many will actually develop friendships and partnerships in the real world. Some of our members have actually said that they now see the network as a more personal form of communication. Because it's all in the words, from brain to brain as it were, without the distractions of other information channels you get in the real world.

In other words, the idiosyncracies of the medium are providing an opportunity for a new form of communication, one no less real and authentic than real life interaction.

What this means for the luxury industry - an industry that is built around the values of personal attention to customers - is that network technology can become the channel of a more personal impression. Rather than reduce the personal touch, it can increase the personal touch, and for more people, too.

I was very recently asked by a jewellery brand renowned for their personal care how I thought they should manage the increasing influx of website enquiries. I replied without hesitation that they should transfer their best shop assistant (the one with the real "human touch") to the website. This answer comes directly from my experience of online human-to-human interaction on Artipolis and other social networks. There is no reason to treat a website enquiry any different to a customer in your store asking a question. The response should be immediate, and it should be personal. The technology exists to provide a live chat facility, so put a real name and a real face to the website, and give customers an answer within 15 seconds, not through email but through the website itself. You could even make a feature of the online shop assistant "approaching" the user, to see if they need any help, instead of waiting to be asked a question. Unlike the real store equivalent, a good online store assistant would be able to handle more than one customer at any given time and, with immediate access to an ocean of information, should be able to give much better informed and more considered advice. If any industry should try augmenting the ecommerce experience with this kind of interaction, the luxury industry is it.